Monday, July 18, 2011

Chinese sausage a la Kuhio Bar & Grill

Back when I was an erstwhile student at the University of Hawaii,  I would occasionally trek down the hill to the now defunct Kuhio Bar & Grill in Honolulu's Moili'ili district whenever I felt particularly flush. 

Kuhio was without a doubt the most unusual eating place I've ever patronized.  There was no menu for the amazing foods that came out of the kitchen, just a list of the local brews and other beverages.  

For the uninitiated, it was a bizarre place of unwritten laws and easy misunderstandings because food was not on the menu, but it was the food that was the main draw.

If you are confused, then you know how I felt when I first was lured in there by the delectable aromas that wound their way out of the front door.  It wasn't your usual bar with stale smoke and old rummies hanging onto the counter, but rather looked like a diner of sorts.  So, I wandered in, sat myself down, and watched steaming plates of fish, beef, Chinese sausages, shrimp, and noodles wind their way out of the little kitchen in the back before being placed in front of happy diners all around me.  The aromas were magnificent, perhaps even more because I couldn't figure out how to get anybody to serve me what the others were having.  I ordered a beer and saw a small plate of something unremarkable land in front of me.  I paid my tab, added fifteen percent, and walked out into the setting sun none the wiser.

I went home to my apartment on Poki Street and complained a bit until my roomie clued me in.
Taiwanese cabbage

"Fifteen percent?" Alohalani was astounded at my stupidity.  "You'll never get anything good that way. Carole's boyfriend tips something like 500% and gets lobster!"

"So what are you saying, you have to bribe the waitresses?" I asked.

"Boy, you're slow," said my always adoring roommate, and a few days later she hauled me back to Kuhio to teach me the ways of the world inside those dark, fragrant walls.

"First of all," she said as we clambered up on the bus, "get the same waitress every time. Let her see you as her faithful patron and work on building up a good relationship with her."

This seemed like a whole lot of work for a meal, but Alohalani was a real stickler about food, so I figured I'd just play along and see what happened.  We got off near Kuhio on King Street, entered the cool darkness, and seated ourselves at a booth that my roomie steered me towards, one that her waitress claimed.  "Two cold Primos," she said, smiling happily up at the Japanese lady standing over us.  Alohalani was in particularly good spirits, smelling the air, humming quietly, and looking for all the world like Christmas had just landed in her lap.

Before long, plates appeared on our table. This was nothing that we had ordered, just things that the waitress decided we might enjoy.  And like we did.  We dove into platters that still sizzled, and my favorite, the one that I've remembered and imitated after all these years, was the sweet Chinese sausages stir-fried with crispy pieces of cabbage.  Simplicity itself, this was made for beer.  I savored each salty morsel and wanted nothing more than to lick the plate.  Alohalani sat back with a satisfied look on her face.

"What just happened?" I asked.  She told me that the place was filled with nothing but regulars who knew their waitresses like old friends. And the waitresses knew what their clients liked. But it all depended upon the tips. The bigger tipper you were, the better the dishes. And soon you could arrange for lobster made to order. But I never got that far... I was always too broke. Little, though, could compete with my fragrant memories of that Chinese sausage, that crispy cabbage, that local beer, and my dinner at the strangest restaurant it's ever been my pleasure to try.

Hawaiian Cantonese food
This is a traditional Cantonese dish that uses the hard little sausages called lop cheong, or lachang in Mandarin. You can usually find these in Chinese grocery stores either in vacuum packs that don't need refrigeration or behind the butcher counter.  Keep them dry and cool (preferably in the fridge), and they'll be ready for you for a long time.

The cabbage I prefer to use is Taiwanese cabbage.  It is squat rather than round, and wonderfully crispy and sweet.  Select one that is heavy for its size and feels solid.  It should smell fresh, rather than like cabbage. Cut the cabbage into wedges as needed, and store the unused portion in a dry plastic bag in the refrigerator; it will keep for about a week.

In honor of my first initiation into the wonders of Chinese sausage, I've used Aloha Shoyu, a tasty Japanese-style soy sauce that goes very well with this stir-fry.  Add a cold Primo beer, and you'll be transported to Kuhio Bar & Grill circa 1975. Thanks again to Alohalani for my delicious initiation and for fine tuning my memories!

Cantonese sausage and cabbage stir-fry 
Guangshi lachang chao baoxincai  廣式臘腸炒包心菜 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon julienned fresh ginger
4 sweet Chinese sausages (lop cheong), sliced thinly on the bias
1½ pounds Taiwanese or head cabbage, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 tablespoon sugar
Fry the cabbage after the sausage
1. Heat the oil in your wok over high heat until it begins to smoke. Add the julienned ginger and quickly stir-fry for a few seconds to scent the oil.  Toss in the sliced sausages and stir-fry them until they start to turn a deep brown on many edges, and even a few pieces are ever-so-slightly burned. Scoot the sausage up the side of the wok and away from the heat.

2. Sprinkle the cabbage into the center of the wok and quickly toss it in the oil so that most of the leaves are evenly coated.  Continue to stir-fry the cabbage over high heat until it is wilted and barely cooked but still sweet and crispy.  Toss the cabbage with the sausage, add the soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar, toss again, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

3. Serve immediately hot with lots of steamed rice.


  1. In 1971 I was living in an apartment building on the corner of Punahou and Dole. My friend took me to the Kuhio Bar & Grill. I remember it exactly as you describe it.

  2. thats the Kuhio in 1971. they were called pupu's. and tip you did for the best of them, from the waitresses purchased provisions, or just got stir fried or tempura vegetables w/ sweet and sour or soy which the kitchen provided to all.

  3. Perfect description! I arrived in Honolulu in April of 1973 and moved in with friends who lived in an apartment on Varsity Circle. The guys in the apartment above us were all on the UH swim team and since we all enjoyed drinking, we quickly became friends.The 2nd week after my arrival they said we had to go to the Kuhio one night and I was told to be sure and bring at least 1 $20.00 bill. It was only about a block away but I was a bit confused as we walked in through the back door, through the kitchen (where they made the magic) and then out to the front. As soon as we got seated, I was told to take out a 20 and set it on the table in front of me and everyone else(there were 6 of us)did the same. They knew the waitress and she greeted us and took our order for beers. As soon as she left to get our beer everyone took their 20 and put it back in their wallets. OK, now I was confused as hell. Jerry B., saw i was confused and he explained there was no menu, the waitress would buy the dishes (pupu's) from the kitchen and bring them out to us. By displaying all the $20's, that was their signal that we were there not just to drink but eat as well (our tip that night was over $100.00). And eat we did. It seemed like an endless stream of different plates would magically appear as we drank. I definitely remember the sausage and cabbage and there was incredible array of food, sashimi, steamed clams in butter sauce, fried eel, etc.. This became pretty much a weekly event and although I thought myself pretty proficient with chop sticks having just spent 18 months in SE Asia, I was no match (initially) for these guys. After our meal it was on to Hotel Street and the Hubba Hubba! (I'll keep this G-rated and spare you the details on that). I look forward to trying your recipe! Mahalo! Rocky in Corpus Christi

  4. When I attended the University of Hawaii from 1972-1976 I used to eat at the Kuhio Grill every weekend. We entered through the kitchen in the rear and were always treated like "Ohana". The best was when we went scuba diving and brought our waitress a bunch of lobsters. She made good money on them and we were some of her favorites. I will never forget that place.

    1. So glad you two enjoyed this wonderful food memory. I've always hoped that someone else would open up a restaurant like that. I'd definitely be a regular!